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And Hawks for Heralds
Steve Miller

ROVE CAPTAIN ROMILY Slate sat comfortably ahorse, enjoying a moment of solitude. Afternoon clouds shredded themselves on still higher mountains. Before him a hanging mist was folded into a green-and-stone tumble of hillsides; hillside and mist fell away together into the river gorge they'd heard so much about for the last ten-day. Beneath all, a disquieting distant rumble-- more felt than heard-- as if the entire land trembled at the might of the river they approached.

Ahead lay the Carrsbritch Crossing. It was best, he'd been told, to keep merchants hours when crossing, no matter that the bridge was open all the hours of the day and night to accommodate the traffic that flowed so heavily between the lands.

It wise, too, to avoid those folks too eager to sell in the hurly-burly town of Hartwell they'd just left. Indeed, if one more well-meaning citizen told him "Never buy from a traveler on the Carrsbritch Road" he would likely draw sword!

Advice could not be avoided in these lands. Everyone was sure to let you know that it was unwise to enter Lamonta with stolen goods if your route took you through Hartwell and the Carrsbritch Crossing.

And so they were warned....

They were from overseas. Even in this well-traveled corridor there was fascination about those from beyond the Bilder Sea, especially when they traveled not as merchants or mentor-and-student, but as soldiers under flag. The fascination extended to their accents, which were sharper and quicker than the speech of the seamen and coastal merchants the locals were accustomed to encountering as travelers.

"Captain! Hah! I'd camp if I were you! Mist makes a crowd on the bridge, you know! Hah! Better view, too, in the sunlight! Hah! Besides, soldiers deal better with soldiers than magicians! Hah!"

This from Ekyr Farer, the odd herb merchant they'd met on the road days before. He tugged his train of pack ponies behind him, and headed for the fork down-trail toward the cliffsides, where he had business collecting precious yellow 'fron. The little man rode, as always, urging his own small horse as if pursued; as always he smelled of his wares--a stark contrast to the bracing scent of the river valley.

"Hah. Camp before the rain comes! Hah! Sleep till dawn! Hah!" came his instruction as he disappeared around a sharp hillside to the right.

Slate muttered under his breath while Grayling, his horse, cocked his head, as if turning to get a repeat of a badly given command, and then pulled slightly on the reins, attempting to drift to the left...

"Poof, horse! Everyone wants to give me directions, including you!" Slate quieted the horse with a good-natured pat on the neck.

Slate and his small troop had made good time from their bivouac on the far side of the sprawling town of Hartwell until a series of gusty rain showers had overtaken them on the slopes rising toward the divide, turning a relatively comfortable fall ride into a miserably damp one, and slowing their progress considerably.

Now his troopers--Catania, Disburno, Arbran, Littlebrook, and Hall-- were relaxing around the luxury of an afternoon fire while they grazed their horses in a hilly meadow a few hundred paces off the busy trade route. The area was known as Kinzel Overlook after some ancient mage. Slate laughed to himself and Grayling, already grazed, pranced for a moment.

Fifty days ago he and his men had been hurried out of DaChauxma on the order of his Lady and her new wizard. Since then he'd gathered to him a magic map, a coin sectioned by a wizard's will, a one-night lover who slept with a glowing talisman around her neck....

Fifty days ago he'd have ridden through a thunderstorm to avoid stopping in a meadow said to have been a wizard's vantage. Now, he merely did his best to move on quickly. His sword had given him no warning of danger, after all.

With that thought he shrugged, flexed his knees, and stretched into the stirrups, nearly standing in them. No getting around it: he was well and truly immersed in magic, against his will. That he'd willingly carry--much less depend on--a magic sword was proof that he was taking leave of his senses well before his mission to find and deal with griffins would likely take his life.

Grayling eagerly accepted his hand's casual hint that they return to the troop and Slate let the horse set his pace on the ride to the day-camp. A cooler, drier breeze was at his back coming away from the valley and as he approached the campsite the high keening of hawks echoed about him--a sign that clearer air must be on the way.

The sound of hawks got unexpectedly louder and more boisterous the closer they got to the campsite; not even the noise of Grayling's quickening strides hid it. Under that was another bird-like call.

Slate hurried his mount on the damp road and up the trail to the meadow. The scent of the wet meadow grass mixed with the husky odor of low-drifting wood smoke as they entered the clearing. Slate caressed the pommel of his sword and found no sign of threat even as he sighted his men and their horses. He reined in Grayling and dismounted beneath the ancient gnarled oak whose deadfall branches had supplied much of the wood for their fire; his eyes were on the sky as soon as his boots touched the meadow.

Flying under the canopy of departing mist were at least a dozen hawks, each keening and calling more loudly than the next. They circled easily in the freshening breeze while DaChauxma's troop stared upward, transfixed.

In the midst of the hawks was something else. Winged and gray, and preternaturally large and silent, it drifted with lazy wings above the meadow. Some trick of the light gave it a brightly shining beak.

It took Slate several moments to put a name to that form--he kept thinking that the creature was an eagle the while his eyes saw something else. Finally he said the word out loud.

"Crow!" the word came unwilling. "A tremendous gray crow!"

It was if the strange tableau had been waiting for just those sounds.

The hawks went silent as one, and the great crow, near colorless against the mist above it, nonchalantly curled wing-feathers and started a long, smartly executed parade-ground glide toward Slate.

Still the sword was quiet.

Slate stood as if rooted as the crow's glide brought it near, then was startled into action as the crow swooped suddenly onto the closest oak branch, barely two arms lengths above, showering him with old bark. The Rove Captain swept his hand in the air to ward off the bark and found his eyes drawn to the intelligent face and strange bright beak.

The crow studied him and with a quick shake of its head it tossed off that shining beak. Instinctively, Slate caught the falling object, to be rewarded with the loud nearly purring crow sentence: "Braddack! Braddack carthulu! Braddack Kinzel carthulu!"

In his hand Slate found not some unnatural beak but a surprisingly heavy piece of cool, shaped glass. He began to inspect it, but was interrupted by a very ordinary and bird-like clucking noise.

The crow clucked again and Slate again found himself looking into that curious and insistent face.

"Braddack," the crow mumbled at him. "Braddack, Braddack carthulu. Carthulu Kinzel."

Slate lifted his hand toward the bird.

"Do you need this back?" he asked uncertainly.

"Carthulu. Carthulu Braddack. Carthulu Kinzel," the crow said, edging slowly away from the proffered glass, and turning his head slightly, denying need.

Slate shook his head in wonder. "I guess you don't need it, eh? My thanks..." He studied the glass, realized that it was some kind of a lens, and put it to his eye to see what the world looked like through it, saw a strange dark apparition approaching looming from nowhere...

"Is it a diamond?" came the apparition's question.

Slate unabashedly jumped as Littlebrook spoke.

"Damn, man, you near surprised the life out of me!"

"And you damn near spooked the rest of us, Captain, showing up like the hawks had called your name. The horses were all unnatural nervous, like they get sometimes when it thunders. We got them all together--thought maybe another storm was showing up, but it was all them birds...."

The hawks above wove through the slowly clearing sky in an intricate dance.

"Look Captain!"

Slate turned to see the crow drifting lazily in the breeze toward Grayling. Shrugging its wings briefly it dropped several hand-heights to land unceremoniously on Slate's sleep pack behind the saddle.

Grayling turned to look at the bird, shook his mane, and resumed grazing. The bird muttered something very much like "Braddack, chick-chick Braddack-chick," folded wings and settled in as if it was something he did every day.

There was something else to see, as Disburno's quiet watch-whistle let Slate know. The avian juggling act overhead had drawn the attention of other travelers, and now a half-dozen or more stared about the meadow. Some were obviously interested in the birds; others looked to be planning on setting up camp.

Slate looked at the bird still perched behind his saddle, then toward the clearing sky with its decoration of wheeling birds, and shook his head a moment. Then he sighed and called out "Break day camp and mount up, Rove Troop. With any luck at all we'll sleep dry in Carrsbritch tonight."

* * *

SLATE SAT AS comfortably as he could on Grayling, the occasional mutter of the crow a strangeness at his back as they waited for yet another party to be ushered off the far end of the structure. The crow had refused to leave its perch and Slate had given up in time, unused as he was to sharing horse. Two more wagons moved onto the dirt, and the Rove Captain sighed a small sigh of relief as their rumble faded away.

With all the advice they'd been given no one had explained exactly why some bridge crossing times were better than others. He'd not been prepared for this slow confusion of people, carts, and wagons and the strange impromptu shelters that people raised--either against the night or against the sight of the bridge, waterfall, and river far below.

It had taken an incredible amount of time for them to move through the bustle, ignoring last minute attempts to sell this or that special luxury for an absurdly low price. Littlebrook could not buy what he wanted--as the troop wouldn't wait for a rendezvous--and what was most for sale were bits of jewelry, or silver and gold.

The bustle had perhaps gotten busier when folk saw the crow; they'd gained space but lost time as onlookers had gawked at the sleepy rider behind Slate. It hadn't helped that they'd arrived bridge-side just as the traffic flow was reversed, and had to wait for twenty wagonloads of goods and twice as many riders and dozens of folk on foot crossed from Lamonta.

Once or twice the crow had muttered when someone spoke loudly, but for the most part he was a quiet passenger, and Slate had seen it go slit-eyed as he'd finally turned and given the command to cross.

The troop had come willingly enough onto the bridge. Littlebrook, even, had started across without comment after receiving his orders. Perhaps it was that Arbran, pulling the pack pony, rode behind Littlebrook for the moment. Arbran being silent, what could an experienced hand like Littlebrook say?

Grayling went more willingly than Slate; but Grayling had come through the trip across the sea well enough and trusted Slate, despite the rumble of the river and the tremble of the bridge.

"Mist means crowds," had said the herb man, and well did he know the truth! For who but the senseless would cross this ancient, trembling structure when one could see the river beneath one's feet and watch entire flocks of birds happily pass beneath as if there were nothing overhead?

Why, too, had none explained that as the mist disappeared entire caravans might abandon their crossing, or delay it until the night made seeing the river impossible?

Slate watched the far end of the bridge rather than looking from side to side. They faced a steep-walled pass, curving out of sight into the mountain range that blocked the setting sun already. The bridge led into a surprising darkness, though portions of it were still in light.

He'd told his men to ride single file, call in case of trouble, but otherwise to look ahead only. Now Slate followed his own advice. In part he wanted to avoid looking down at the waterfall a few hundred paces away--that fell to the river a few thousand paces below--and in part he wished to pay attention to the soldiers and other officials on the far side. What magic he might face he couldn't know. But troops and taxmen? Those, at least, he could be alert for.

He would have preferred for the Rove Troop not to have been noticed. Yet that was impossible with the crown of hawks still circling above. Only those already on the bridge when the troop arrived had not given way before them, though DaChauxma rode with weapons sheathed and house-flag furled.

In front of him was a cart pulled by a pony between wooden drawbars, who from time to time was helped by two women who pushed against crossbars on either side of the draw; when they'd seen him behind them they'd nearly fled the bridge and only some resolute word from one to the other had changed their minds. Was it the bird? Was it himself, a foreign soldier?

He sighed. It didn't matter--it could just as well be the bridge and the roaring of the water and the lowering night as his face or the crow. Slate, too, was nervous.

Here they were as trapped as on ship, or more so, for on board there had always been the vague chance of surviving going over the side. Ahead was a threat more visible than any he'd imagined on that ocean crossing, for he could see stonework set back from the bridge, stonework that smacked of hidden archers, and of troops in waiting. What a pass to guard, with the bridge your ally! Crossing that height with but some board between a man and his doom could be enough to unnerve an enemy without having soldiers to deal with as well!

Now they moved slowly by the covered section in the center of the bridge where, for a moment, Slate felt a little more secure. The crow riding behind muttered something and Grayling pranced a half-step, but both settled down immediately. This was not a place for a nervous horse.

Slate involuntarily glanced over the side rails into the river gorge, surprised and relieved at the depth of the darkness there, but more surprised at how fast that darkness was falling all about as they waited for their turn at the bridge-gate.

There was smoke ahead now as torches were lit; a runner was making his way around the permanent emplacements on the hillside beyond and around the curve of the hills, and another moved across the bridge, lighting flickering fires in the great ceramic urns on the side of the bridge as the shadow out of the gorge rose palpably.

Torch-light illuminated what looked to be a stone corral beyond the bridge-end, large enough for eight or ten good-sized horses. The place was cluttered with bundles, kegs, oddments, several crates, and leather carrybags of many kinds.

Only the pony-cart ahead of him was still on the bridge now, in front of it the counter-weighted wooden swing-arm that acted as gate for the travelers. The several wagons on the other side of that gate were inspected rather casually, two men on a side. The inspectors moved like tired men, thought Slate, men all too likely to be bored or cross...and he'd seen them administer no test, give no challenge.

From behind came a familiar sound, distracting Slate. The sound was of a small pony or two pacing steadily, their step punctuated by "hah!"

Slate turned involuntarily, perhaps waking the crow, who blinked and rustled about a bit but said nothing. Behind him his men had also turned, and saw a remarkable sight in the dimming light.

Herbalist Farer was making hurried headway across the bridge. Travelers were letting him by, as if his "hah!" was an order. Then the bridge was too crowded, and the herbman paused. He raised a hand as he saw Slate and mouthed the words "too late!"

Slate smiled and sketched a salute before facing front and relaxing back into the saddle--had the herbman really expected to cross so quickly?

Ahead now was a commotion. The wagons were being passed through and the cart ahead was moving up. At the same time new guards and inspectors were arriving. There were different uniforms now and Slate recognized a change of shift. Just as well, he thought, to get a fresh crew and get through quickly.

That idea went from his head almost immediately though. The new inspectors began one at the front and one at the back, as well as one in conversation with the cart driver. They looked at each section of the cart as if they'd never seen one before, using lanterns to cast light beneath the cart. They knocked and listened carefully.

Nearby a small wooden dais was now occupied as well, by an ornately dressed man on a wooden bench. Slate flinched, for the dais had its own light, as if it were lit from within. No need for smoky torches or any such to disturb the man who sat there. Magic! And that man must be magic, too, for Slate had not seen him arrive in the stand for all his attention.

The man on the dais stood, as if Slate's glance disturbed him. Slate did not look away. The man spoke to a soldier standing guard; that solider looked swiftly at Slate and his band, and hurried toward the inspection area.

Slate felt his sword stir, as if it was being...careful. He rested his elbow on the edge of the hilt, and could feel the very tiniest of energies about it. Not immediate danger, perhaps, but wariness.

The guard from the dais reached an inspector at the horse's harness, and tapped him quickly on the back. The inspector turned, outraged, but when he saw who it was his outrage became mere surprise, and when he took in the wave toward the bridge--clearly indicating Slate and his troop--he snapped to alert and called out to his comrades.

"We are done with these. Let them pass. The Bispham himself will lead the next inspection!"

* * *

THE BISPHAM STOOD before Slate, his armed guards and border troops about him like a cloak of power. It seemed to Slate that the man needn't display his armed might so readily, given the wondrous array of wands of power he had tucked about his amazing, purple garb. He'd even wore on his head an overcap of conical construction, like an imitation of wizard caps of old, that glittered with gemstones in the torch light.

The Bispham bowed--actually a very slight nod.

"How very pleased I am to be here at the border to welcome you, Rove Captain Slate. News of your coming has preceded you, and we were quite expecting an army to appear on our doorstep. And how pleasant that you should have delayed until nightfall, which is my shift this moon!"

Slate bowed, considered his words, wished yet again that a witch had not called his name...and wished, too, that they'd been permitted to stay ahorse. He disliked the whole of this: it smacked too much of theater for his taste!

"I am but a Rove Captain with a small troop, as you can see. If tales have sprung up claiming us more than that I apologize. There was no need to bring your..." here he hesitated, then smiled wryly. The dread had gone from him, despite the insistent low vibration of the sword.

"You have the better of me sir, I have not your name and..."

There was a modest laughter, quickly hushed, among the soldiers.

"No one has my name, or may have it for mere conversation," came the reply tartly. "I am the Bispham of the Bridge, carrying on the tradition of proper judging of people permitted to complete the Carrsbritch Crossing. You may call me ‘Sir Magician,' or if you prefer ‘Bridgemaster'. As you must know, Lamonta is a peaceful, law-abiding place. We permit travelers to visit, to pass through, and even to engage in commerce, as we find that the prosperity of all depends on the such.

"We do, insist, however, that no one may bring in to Lamonta items which do not properly belong to them, and if they do bring such items, they must not be permitted to carry them farther but must relinquish them to our care, that we might return them to their proper owners or find those who might be able to utilize them if the proper owners are not about. It is the duty of The Bispham of the Bridge to keep such order here; elsewhere there are others of my rank to keep order if need be..."

Slate closed his eyes briefly, nodding. This was why the costs of some goods fell as one closed on the border. Not because they were common in Lamonta--but because they would be contraband on this side of the bridge!

"And so, Rove Captain, we must inspect your troop as we inspect all other travelers. You'll note that some travelers have discovered on their own that they have somehow come to carry things whose ownership is unclear --and they have willingly divested themselves of all such here in the Stonekeep where such goods are held until their rightful owners might be ascertained. You and your men are welcome to take advantage of the few moments left of sunglow to make your own inspection of the goods you carry before we make ours."

At that point The Bispham pulled from its hook one of the many wands he carried, and waved it about meaningfully.

"Understand, Captain, that we are able to identify items that are not traveling with proper ownership or permissions. If need be, I am empowered to enforce penalties, as well."

"Thank you, Bridgemaster. I will confer with my troop to ensure that none carry aught but what they should."

Slate turned to his men warily, eyes searching the faces of two in particular. Littlebrook, whose grasp of items was likely better than his grasp of ownership, and Arbran, who'd fled his home that he not suffer the fate of far too many younger sons in houses of influence. Arbran had even brought one of his father's swords to their first meeting, claiming his right to carry it....

"We are told," he said gently. "I trust none of you have any doubt of what we are being offered. We have the opportunity here to give over anything that we carry under false pretense. I cannot speak to the penalty, except that we are somewhat outnumbered and on strange ground to boot. So, please, do not hesitate."

His men looked at him, and at each other. None made move one.

"I take that as an answer I can deliver to the magician, then?"

His men nodded, one by one, even Littlebrook, even Arbran.

"So shall we say," he said carefully. Slate nodded to each of them, felt that slight tingle of danger in the sword, and turned to face The Bispham.

"I am told that none carry good they should not, Bridgemaster."

The Bispham looked smug.

"Such an honest troop of rovers I doubt I've seen before, Captain. Surely, before I must insist with my own means, you might find about you that which does not belong to you or yours."

"We are certain, Bridgemaster," Slate said.

"My inspectors will assist you, now, Rove Captain. Please understand this is a courtesy we would extend to any of your house."

* * *

THEY STOOD, EACH beside the piles of their belongings, each with bareback horse at side, except for Slate. Slate stood between two piles--the paltry one that was his and the larger, more important pile that was those things that belonged to House DaChauxma. The pack-pony was tethered, likely grateful to be without his load. Grayling waited impatiently at Slate's back. His saddlebags had been carefully removed, but the gray crow stood fast on the saddle, refusing Slate's entreaties to be gone as well as rebuffing the "assistance" of The Bispham's minions.

Slate was inclined to think kindly of the crow despite it, for by now it was clear that those packed onto the bridge favored the crow. There were many people now on the bridge, slinking in from the night, calling out that no one had the right to stop the gray crow on his own bridge!-- and it might well be that Slate would find his last joy here, fighting a stupid last fight over a stupid mission while the crow laughed for him at his enemies...

One of The Bispham's guards, braver than the rest, or seeking favor, closed on the crow again, this time raising a stick to jab at him. Grayling lashed out instantly with a hind foot, knocking the man down and raising and unexpected murmur of laughter and approval from the gallery on the bridge.

"For the sake of rain, man," Slate roared,"that's a war-horse! Might as well come at him straight on with a sword and get your head bashed in!"

The Bispham glared at the proceedings from his vantage point next to Catania's pitiful pile where he and a scribe were inventorying the belongings cursorily. A guard stood beside them, bored. Catania, it was plain, carried nothing worth consideration on his person.

"You, there, Captain! You'll need to control your horse if you wish to keep it!" The Bispham's threats were becoming more blatant; Slate was not surprised to find his sword still vibrating low with warning.

The downed guard rose with a limp, looked to his corporal, who shrugged and waved him away.

Slate could hear some of the questions Catania was answering. Did he have any jewels? None. Where had he gotten the small silver neck pendant?

From his dead wife. Did he gamble? That was answered with a laugh and a quick--"Only by volunteering!" "Do you carry anything you've stolen?"

"I do not!" "Where did you get your horse?" "From the house--it carries DaChauxma's mark, look you, like my saddle and my weapon and my bedroll and my life."

The magician waved several of his various wands over Catania and his pile, snorted, and said--"Pack this junk up. Your house does well by you with horse and gear, I see, and pays you not at all!"

Stuart Hall was a different matter; being born out of the Household he had trinkets and geegaws, and a change of clothing meant for a modest Court. He also had a tongue in his head, which became unlimbered as his crossbow was inspected. "Did you make this?" "My uncle did. It was my gift for Twelfth Year." "What do you carry that you've stolen?" "Not a damn thing!" "And this jewelry? Hardly what I'd expect of a soldier in the same troop as that pauper!" "I'm out of house, a younger son. All here was given me or bought by me, Bridgemaster!" This last was said with such insulting venom that the guard stepped closer in warning.

The Bispham looked Hall in the eye and said "We shall see, we shall see!" and brought forth some pendulous and flashy jeweled thing, which he swung over the pile while muttering. He also said to the scribe, "Make a note of the gold pieces--they are foreign gold and the ownership harder to be sure of!"

Slate winced at that, for even if they were let go how hard would it be to do their mission with no gold to buy food or information?

The scribe said something Slate couldn't hear, and The Bispham simply said, "Note it all, note it all," before turning to his next task.

The Bispham peered dismissively at Disburno, who was standing quietly beside his painted pony, talking in his own language as he plaited its mane gently, from saddle forward. The little man was in his Plain's garb rather than house clothes; and he was heedless of the magician, even when the awkward clatter of wands should have told him he was under scrutiny.

The wizard made several quick passes with the wands, and then chose a different one, which he also swung about energetically while mumbling some magic phrase or spell.

Apparently magic spoke not of stolen goods and The Bispham turned his attention to Arbran, next closest to Slate, and his curiously large pile. In it, conspicuously, was the hat that Arbran had worn when he came to the troop. That was the very hat Slate had told him to get rid of, since it made him an obvious target for an archer.

But the rest...the rest was the bedroll. It was fluffed to amazing proportions and on it lay some few odds and ends of Arbran's life--a knife, some coins, the hat, a fancy belt, his sword.

The Bispham looked Arbran over carefully.

"Are you a gambler?"


"Odd, that looks like a gambler's hat to me. Where did you get it?"

"I, was a gift from my mother."

"Ahhh...of course," said The Bispham. "Your mother gives you a parting present of a gambler's hat while you travel with a troop of rootless, roving mercenaries?"

Arbran reacted as if slapped.

"We are not rootless! We are on a mission for House DaChauxma ..."

"And neither you nor your horse are of that house, eh? So you are a mercenary who wears a gambler's hat!"

"This hat is from my mother, who insisted I take it. It is... it is in case I need to be paroled. She will know this hat is mine, because she had it from her last lover ere she married my father!"

"So it is a gambler's hat, and you have it without his permission!"

"It is not stolen!"

"You are on the edge of trouble, boy," said the magician, and then to his scribe, "Note the hat and the silly feather blanket too."

This time the Bridgemaster took several wands out and waved them slowly to muttering and mumbling...

"The permissions on some of these items is scanty at best! You'd do well to decide which should stay here!"

With that he harumphed his way to Littlebrook, who was looking not at all at ease.

"Just hand over the goods. You needn't explain how they came to you."

Littlebrook glanced over toward Slate sheepishly and reached into his leather belt pouch. He withdrew several things--what exactly Slate couldn't see--and tried to hand them to The Bispham. He waved the items over to his scribe as if unwilling to be touched by someone willfully carrying an item not his own.

Slate shook his head in disgust as the scribe unceremoniously shook out a handful of fine-linked necklaces. They were likely troth-gifts or even bride-badges, exactly the kind of things a young buck looking to show-off to his cronies might take away from his evening's pleasure. Better a soldier to buy an honest working girl's time for the night than tempt fate trifling with husbands and boyfriends thus...

"What else? There's something else. You've got it in your boots!"

Littlebrook looked appalled, but managed to gasp out, "There's nothing in my boots but my feet and my stockings!"

"Take them off!" said the magician, pulling forth a wand and waving it excitedly over Littlebrook's feet. "Yes. Take them off and we'll see!"

Littlebrook sat awkwardly on his blanket roll, pulling first one and then the other of his boots off. He tipped them to show that they held nothing....

The magician looked momentarily perplexed, pulled out another wand and said several words. He tried again, shoved that wand away, and pulled out the pendant thing he had used earlier.

Now he smiled.

"Tell me about the boots. Where did you get them?"

Littlebrook grimaced. "I won them. It was a drinking bet, see and..."

"Bah! Bah! You took them from a drunk! You did, didn't you!"

"We had a bet! We did so," Littlebrook insisted.

"And he was drunk stupid when you took them, wasn't he? Stolen boots! Leave them!"

Slate felt his frustration molding itself to something like anger. What a stupid matter to be using magic for! What a waste there was of power, to aim it all at someone like Lyle Littlebrook!

Littlebrook looked miserable, but the magician wasn't done with him. Littlebrook turned out every pocket, had to account for every coin: copper, silver, or gold. In the end he was out boots and coins, necklaces and bracelets. Still the magician fiddled with his wands. He came back once more to Littlebrook's feet.

With a cunning expression the magician quickly touched Littlebrook's ankle with his wand. There was a sharp report, as of shield meeting shield.

Littlebrook moaned, dropped his hand to his ankle, and sat down.

"No, you'll not get away with this one either. What are you hiding in your stockings? Or did you steal your socks?"

Littlebrook said nothing but began to struggle out of the stockings.

Slate stood on the balls of his feet now, the sword comfortably humming against him, as if eager, as if feeding on his anger. What necessity to drag a man's very socks...

"The story!" The magician insisted, bringing his wand toward the struggling man.

"A lady-" he began "well, she, we, we bathed and then I needed stockings and so she put on these from her master's linens...."

"Leave them then! Stand up!"

"Enough! You've proved your point, now enough is done!"

Slate wasn't sure who was most surprised. Certainly the crowded bridge went silent; certainly the Bridgemaster stopped his harangue; certainly Lyle Littlebrook looked amazed. Certainly, it was Slate's own voice that had rung out in the dim night air.

The magician was fumbling about his robe madly, while Littlebrook hurriedly divested himself of the tell-tale stockings. Everyone else was momentarily still, save the hawks still circling overhead, added a course of keening to Slate's demand.

Firelight glinted on the wand aimed directly at Slate; yet nothing happened. The magician stood impotent with rage for a long moment and pulled out another wand, looked at it, and then gathered himself and waved scribe and guards toward Slate angrily.

Slate, for his part, stood firm. What was done was done; he only hoped Littlebrook would be able to soldier again once they got away from this accursed place. A captain must always care for his troops and Slate would answer for duty if need be.

The Bispham strode distantly around Grayling, his guard and scribe following in a rush. Behind him Catania, Hall, and Arbran had gone to Littlebrook and had gotten their comrade seated, though he shook mightily.

On Grayling's back the crow stirred, watching The Bispham's elegant, glittery headgear with grave interest-- muttering, muttering, muttering

"Braddack, Braddack, Braddack. Carthulu Braddack, Braddack."

"Rove Captain, what a fine brave band of honest men you bring us," the magician said as he approached. "And what brave words. Do you tell us how to guard our own country?"

The mage clanked somewhat, as if he'd not placed all his wands firmly in their tucks and they now banged against each other. His voice, unctuous as it was, hid none of the excitement that also showed in his face. Slate had fought men in this state, and found them dangerously overconfident.

Against his best wishes Slate's voice was loud in the night.

"Bridgemaster, if dirty stockings were a threat to Lamonta surely the country would have fallen long ago!"

"Do not mock me, outlander!"

There was no answer to give so Slate gave none. His duty now was to get the troop beyond this madman, and to move somehow on to the mission. Ay, at this moment he'd gladly face the griffins rather than this wand-toting fool.

The Bridgemaster was breathing hard and waving his assistants to his side urgently.

"Enough!" came a voice from the bridge. "We have a home to go to! Let us through and finish your torture later!"

A more familiar voice called out "Huh! They bear the crow--let them go!"

The magician glared toward the bridge and, grabbing a wand, made a quick motion in that direction. A sharp, lightning bright flash lit the night, bringing cries of dismay from men and beasts alike.

"The Bispham decides who enters and who is a thief! Silence!"

Rather than silence there were mutterings and complaints. The Bispham didn't notice the muttering, so intent was he on Slate. Slate's eyes were still dazzled; he more heard than saw the magician come close.

"How dare you attempt to command here? You who captain a circus--an old crow, a trick-trained horse, and hawks as heralds--think to bring your thieves into Lamonta unchallenged? Rove Captain, Rove Captain!"

The magician waved his wand at Slate. "I will let you and your men pass, Rove Captain, but I will keep your saddle bags filled with gold and silver, and I will keep your own trick horse, as well! These things are claimed as penalties! This is my command!"

The magician strode toward Grayling and the horse turned to face him straight on. The crow, now clinging stubbornly to the saddle, stretched wings and cried out "Braddack! Braddack!"

The magician warily slowed his approach to the horse and began waving that wand. Grayling began advancing and the magician said some magic words, raised the wand over his head as if to strike the horse bodily.

As the wand reached the height of its arc there was tremendous keening noise and a clatter of feather and wind as the rod was snatched from the Bridgemaster's grasp in a clean strike by a hawk. Just after came another hawk, screaming and diving at the still outstretched hand, and then another.

The magician flung himself to the ground, screaming, "Archers!"

Grayling was still advancing on the heedless magician and Slate whistled sharply, diving past the man and grabbing up trailing reins. The crow lifted suddenly from the horse, screaming crow-complaints at the melee. Wands littered the ground around the magician and as he scrabbled about trying to grab them the hawks continued to strike at him. He tumbled again, losing his gem-studded cap and exposing his half-bald head to the torchlight--and to the attacks of the hawks.

There was a shout of "DaChauxma!" and a barefooted Littlebrook came riding up to Slate, short lance to hand, and then there was a strange cracking sound as the bridge gate went down to a surging crowd.

Above all the noise was a sudden, piercing shriek.

"My cap, the crow has stolen my cap!"

Slate followed the magician's pointed finger. The gray crow was climbing slowly into the night air, circling the bridge....

"Gold, a dozen pieces to who recovers my cap! Two dozen pieces of gold."

The magician stood with wand in hand, pointing, waving, saying words...all to no effect.

"Troops, recover my cap!"

The crow glided majestically across the river gorge, and, with all heads watching, turned very neatly, and alighted on the roofed center section of the bridge, the fire from torch and urn flames glinting off the cap.

The magician turned to Slate, now astride Grayling.

"Captain, I demand your crow return my cap, I demand!"

A rush of The Bispham's men ran onto the bridge.

"Hah," came a familiar sound. "Hah."

The herbman came abreast of Slate, shaking his head sadly, leaning down to talk at the bare-headed magician.

"Hard to catch that crow. Couldn't with a thousand men. Kinzel couldn't catch him. Your men can't. Humph. If he likes you, he'll bring you presents. If he don't, he ignores you. Humph. Have to listen sometime, Bispham or not. That's the crow made this bridge famous. Humph. Two hundred and fifty years old, we figure. Smarter than you. Tried to tell you. Humph. If your magic's in your cap you'll never get it back if you don't let these folk travel on. Humph. Crow's a friend of theirs. Any fool coulda seen that. I did. Humph."

On the bridge the crow had moved from one side of the roof to the other as an enterprising solider made it to the rooftop. The crowd watched, half from the shore and half from the bridge, offering suggestions.

Seven archers came racing to The Bispham, trying not to look at his bare head. "Bridgemaster, we are here! Shall we shoot the crow? Or shall we try to catch it?"

The magician looked hopeful for a moment.

"Wouldn't," said the herb man."Humph. Lose the cap forever. Long way to the river. Pretty deep, too. Humph. My advice is good. Gotta be."

On the bridge the crow flew from the rooftop to the railing and then swooped out into the night. As the soldier who'd been on the roof got down to the bridge deck the gray form swooped from beneath the bridge and landed back in the same spot he been in.

Slate found himself with a troop--all mounted and packed--as The Bispham's soldiers tried building a human ladder. Gold if they could just get that bird....

The Bridgemaster looked disgustedly at his archers and then up at Slate and his men, and spoke to a point somewhere in between.

"Let the bird be. Let this troop pass. Let everyone pass, until daybreak--free passage, in honor of the crow--by order of The Bispham."

"Hah! Hah! Rove troop'll need a place to sleep. Know one. Hah! Listen this time! Hah!"

Slate turned to look at his men, who watched carefully, and heard the distant sound of hawks in the night.

"Hah!" he said finally, and pointed toward the herb man's retreating back. "I advise you to go that way!"

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